In collaboration with the National Geographic Society, William Daniels set off on a photographic journey around the globe, to document the fates of people who find themselves stateless. For three years, he travelled to different areas of instability – including India, Nepal, Lebanon and the Dominican Republic – where he took numerous pictures and heard countless stories. He spoke with us about the experiences he had during this ambitious project.
At what point in your life did you start to take photographs and how did this passion develop over time?
When I was 20, I was a student of Physics and I felt my life was boring, without any sense. I had the opportunity to travel to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe for an internship related to my studies. When the internship ended, I stayed there and worked for a few months as a salesman in a small photography store. As soon as I had enough money, I left on a backpack trip around the Caribbean, by boat, hitch-hiking and then crossing Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. I took a lot of pictures. I understood how great it would be to earn my living having such exceptional experiences and taking pictures. A couple of years later, I taught photography at a small NGO in the Philippines, to young girls who had been subject to different kinds of violence. I discovered then the power of photography for social issues, and a bit later I started to work for the French press.
What led you to visually explore the topic of stateless people?
I’ve covered several conflicts zone since I started as a young photographer and I keep asking myself this very simple, yet obvious, question: How do we, humans, get to the point of fighting each other? What is the mechanism that leads to the hate? I’m also very concerned about the growing populism affecting every part the world – even our western “democracies”. I’ve been trying to understand this for a long time, by working on such issues.
How did you prepare for this project and how did you choose the locations?
I spent a lot of time researching, reading, meeting specialists on statelessness. Notably, I had some very good advice from the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, as well as writer Brook Larmer, with whom I was supposed to continue this project for National Geographic magazine.
How did you gain access to your protagonists, and what impressions did they leave with you?
Most of the time I meet them through civil societies. There are many small NGOs able to introduce me to communities. I also work with a fixer, if possible linked to the community. For instance, in Nepal I worked with a great fixer who is from a different community than the ones I worked on; but his community has been quite discriminated against too. The legacy of the caste system is still very strong in Nepal. So, he feels connected to the story, and had very good connections with people who trusted him. In the Dominican Republic, my fixer was an Haitian descendant, who grew up in a batey.
What was the most difficult part of this project?
Statelessness is a very complicated issue to document, because there are different kind of statelessness – many different reasons for statelessness. Even some international organizations don’t have the same opinion about it. So it was important to me to meet a lot of different communities, which is very time consuming. And because this is a story that deserves empathy and intimacy, I feel frustrated that I didn’t spend enough time with some of them. This is one of the reasons I want to further pursue this project.
You worked with the Leica M and the Leica Q for this project. What are the biggest differences between the two cameras?
I’ve been an ambassador for both the M10 and the Q2. I really like both; they are quite complementary. I have a little preference for the M system that I’ve been using for a long time. The Q2 is very practical for quick and discreet ‘point and shoot’ pictures. Sometimes I just walk around with the Q2 in my jacket pocket, nothing else. With the M10/M10P, I try to get more creative pictures, more personal ones. I also really enjoy the M system’s hyperfocal. I don’t know any autofocus system than can be faster than shooting hyperfocal!
To what extent does your equipment influence your photography?
For me, good pictures of people arise when the photographer becomes so invisible, that the protagonists can allow themselves to express their feelings. I’m also always looking for intimacy with internal low lights. For such goals, my Leicas are the best tools thanks to the discreet size and sound of the M and Q bodies, in addition to the great quality of the lenses in low lights. The Summilux lenses are just the best I’ve ever worked with.
What did the project teach you?
Stateless people are discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion, language, or gender. As borders become more porous and nations around the world face surges of populism and xenophobia, the human impulses that feed the exclusion of such groups can be found in all societies. I believe we cannot realize equitable development for all, or promote peace and democracy, without addressing this phenomenon. More than 70 years after the passage of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upholds every person’s right to a nationality, the indignity of statelessness still persists on every continent, fuelled by conflict, prejudicial laws, shifting borders, and the collapse of states and colonial empires.
French photographer William Daniels’ interest is directed towards the human search for identity, and issues of documentation in places affected by instability. He is a Fellow of the National Geographic Society and the author of four books: Mauvais Air, Faded Tulips, RCA and Wilting Point. His work has been the recipient of many international awards, including two World Press Photo Awards, one Visa d’Or and the Tim Hetherington Grant. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.